As American films, television shows, celebrities, and culture dominate the world, most of us know what common Americanisms mean, or we look them up. On the other hand most Americans don’t bother to find out what the equivalent is in other countries, especially in the UK, so here is a mini guide to what we Brits know, but don’t bother to correct Americans. Why? Simply because we know what they mean and adapt. Here are some of my tales, when there was confusion on both sides. For reference the American word is first followed by the UK term (which came first!).

  1. Projects v Council Estates. I was in New York City when my Uncle mentioned there were some new projects in his old neighborhood. I innocently asked what kind of projects were they. Then they showed me, and I realized it was what is now termed purpose built housing. I honestly thought they were implementing some work or recreational projects in the area.
  2. Blowout v Blowdry. When I first saw this on a Groupon offer, I wondered what on earth they do. I was looking for a blow dry, I mean that makes sense—they blow dry your hair. I must admit I thought it was some kind of misprint as it sounded like an intimate act, but Groupon doesn’t advertise that kind of thing, not in the UK anyhow.
  3. Cellphone v Mobile (phone). While everyone does know what these terms mean (cellular phone) many Americans won’t call it a mobile, and insist on calling it a cell. A cell to me is a prison, and not a mobile phone!
  4. French Press v Cafetière. I had a communication break down when I rented a room and the owner was showing me the kitchen. She told me she had a French Press, which I ignored because I had no idea what it was. Then I saw the cafetière, and mentioned it. “Oh you have a cafetière,” I said, to which she smiled, as she had no clue what I was on about. Somehow we went back and forth talking about the same item and not even realizing it. In the end I never used it.
  5. Cookies v Biscuits. Most people know that UK biscuits are US cookies, but in the US, biscuits are scones. I was surprised to find them on breakfast menus and the worst, as biscuits and gravy. Somehow it seems so very wrong to eat them as a savory dish. Long live the cheese scone.
  6. Sheer Panels v Voiles. I was helping my old landlady with some refurbishing to show her house on an open day, and thought voiles would be a cheap and quick way to add color and hide things. After a day of searching in Target, Pier 1, and Home Depot, I found several. Finally she gasped, “This is what you were on about!” because she had no idea what I was looking for, and spent the whole day being quiet, because she didn’t want to sound silly for not knowing what a voile was.
  7. Open Container v Open Bottle or Can. I was very confused when I saw signs prohibiting ‘open containers’, because I didn’t know what it meant. Surely someone can open a can of soda and drink it? Finally a friend explained it was to stop people drinking alcohol in public, and they use the word container to disguise that fact, but apparently all people know that an open container means alcohol?
  8. Sunnyside Up or Over Easy (egg) v Fried. I ran into this problem when I was ordering breakfast one day. You could choose how your eggs were done, and I just wanted it fried. The server looked at me, and I quickly scanned the menu and it all is said was eggs of your choice. I’d heard the term sunnyside up and said it and hoped for the best. In the UK we just say ‘well done’ or ‘slightly runny in the middle’.
  9. Skillet v Frying Pan. It still amazes me that some Americans can’t figure out what I’m looking for when I ask for a frying pan. It’s simple—a pan to fry something in. The amount of times people have corrected me and said it’s a skillet, and I want to fry something not skillet something.
  10. Trash or Garbage v Rubbish. You’ll be surprised at how many Americans don’t understand the word. In fact it astonishes me. The words are usually interchangeable, but to be trashy in the UK means something is cheap and common, so the word isn’t used often, as it is slang. As a result I try not to get into the habit of using the word trash, and use the phrase bin it, so that people know what I mean. Seriously, I once asked where the rubbish goes in the US to be met with a blank stare.
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